Vice-presidential candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence, meeting for their lone campaign debate, traded verbal blows Tuesday over Hillary Clinton’s emails, Donald Trump’s income taxes and whose running mate was less trustworthy.
It was a lower-key fight than Clinton and Trump’s first debate, but it was an interruption-filled standoff that the moderator, CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano, struggled to control.
On the whole, Kaine, 58, a senator for Virginia, and Pence, 57, the Indiana governor, strategically tried to spend as little time as possible defending their own running mates and as much as possible attacking the rival at the top of the ticket. Time after time, Kaine turned questions back to Trump; Pence to Clinton.
“I can’t imagine how Governor Pence can defend the insult-driven, selfish, me-first style of Donald Trump,” Kaine said early in the debate. The Democrat questioned Trump’s temperament, his vow to deport illegal immigrants and reports that Trump could have not paid any federal income taxes for nearly 20 years.
“That’s small potatoes compared to Hillary Clinton calling half of Donald Trump’s supporters a ‘basket of deplorables,’ ” Pence countered. The Republican said “America’s place in the world has weakened” under Democratic leadership and that the Clinton-Kaine ticket represented “more of the same.” He said the Democrats wanted “more regulations, more of the same war on coal . . . more Obamacare.” He said called Clinton an “architect” of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, which he said was “spinning out of control.”
Kaine was more aggressive at the outset, using apparently practiced lines (“Do you want a ‘You’re hired’ president in Hillary Clinton or a ‘You’re fired’ president in Donald Trump,” a reference to Trump’s line from his reality TV show) and repeating insults that Trump has issued during the campaign.
Pence, a former television and radio talk show host, often tried to deflect criticisms about Trump without directly answering them and instead aimed at Clinton. He said Clinton was untrustworthy but didn’t deny a report that suggested Trump might not have paid federal income taxes for years.
The crosstalk came early and often during the forum at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, especially with Kaine trying to talk over Pence.
“Gentlemen, the people at home cannot understand either one of you when you speak over each other,” Quijano pleaded at one point. “I would please ask you to wait until the other is finished.”
The toughest part for Pence appeared to be the issue of Trump’s income taxes. Pence began talking about Trump’s business organization, but Kaine jumped in to ask why Trump wouldn’t release his taxes.
“We’re answering the question about the business thing,” Pence contended. “His tax returns showed he went through a very difficult time . . . ”
“How do you know that?” Kaine interjected.
Pence continued: “But he used the tax code just the way it’s supposed to be used and he did it brilliantly.”
Kaine cited Trump’s response last week that not paying taxes made him smart. Kaine added, “I guess all of us who do pay for those things, I guess we’re stupid,” referring to taxes that pay for the military and schools.
“Do you take all the deductions you’re entitled to?” Pence said. “I do.”
They vigorously sparred on who would make the best commander in chief.
Kaine, noting he has a son in the Marines deployed overseas, said that while he and his wife trust Clinton, “the thought of Donald Trump as commander in chief scares us to death.”
Kaine questioned Trump’s temperament noting the real estate executive got into a recent Twitter fight with a beauty contestant.
Pence said, “America is less safe today . . . It’s absolutely inarguable. . . . It’s been a combination of factors, but mostly it’s been a lack of leadership.”
Toward the end, Kaine and Pence engaged in an unexpected debate over abortion. Kaine focused on Trump’s comments that a woman seeking an abortion should be “punished.”
“Donald Trump and I would never support” a law that “punishes” a woman that seeks abortion, Pence said, while vowing to support anti-abortion policies.
“Why don’t we trust women? Why doesn’t Donald Trump trust women” with the choice, Kaine said.
The two nominees also went at it over Russia, with Kaine noting Trump’s praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump’s former campaign manager’s ties to a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
“You’ve got to be tough on Russia, so let’s start with not praising Vladimir Putin as a great leader,” Kaine said. “If you don’t know the difference between dictatorship and leadership, then you’ve got to go back to a fifth-grade civics class.”
Pence sought to blame the Obama administration’s “weak and feckless” policies for Russia’s aggression in Syria and linked it to Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.
In contrast with his running mate, Pence called Putin a “small and bullying leader” and added that the “provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength.”
The debate is the one time the two running mates will be in the national spotlight. Though largely unknown by the American public, each is trying to shore up support for their party, though in different ways.